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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s INFERNO

by Glenn Erickson Feb 20, 2018

 

A cinematic puzzle and a filmic detective piece, Serge Bromberg’s examination of a world-class filmmaker’s catastrophic, never-finished production fascinates and dazzles. If the particulars of H.G. Clouzot’s experimental epic of internal torment remain clouded, the astonishing visuals he created are a total knockout. Working with hours of uncut dailies and precise collaborator memories, Bromberg gives us the most interesting filmic autopsy on record. Incredible stuff!

Inferno
(L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot)

Blu-ray
Arrow Academy
2009 / Color & B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 100 min. / L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot / Street Date February 6, 2018 / Available from Arrow Video 34.95
Starring: Romy Schneider, Serge Reggiani, Bérénice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin, Dany Carrel, Jean-Claude Bercq, Mario David, Catherine Allégret, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Gilbert Amy, Jacques Douy, Jean-Louis Ducarme, Costa-Gavras, William Lubtchansky, Thi Lan Nguyen, Joël Stein, Bernard Stora, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Bernard Blier, Inès Clouzot, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura, Burt Lancaster.
Cinematography: Jérôme Krumenacker, Irina Lubtchansky
Film Editor: Janice Jones
Original Music: Bruno Alexiu
Written and Produced by Serge Bromberg
Directed by
Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea Annonier

 

Plenty of noteworthy films have been canceled, shelved or otherwise chloroformed before seeing the light of day. The famous 1965 documentary The Epic That Never Was collects dailies from Josef von Sternberg’s legendary abandoned I, Claudius, yielding great insight into the working problems of the famous actor Charles Laughton. But we’re also curious about another movie that never was, MGM’s epic presentation of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate. A regime change wiped out Fred Zinnemann’s production literally weeks before shooting was to begin, when the film was entirely cast and giant sets already built.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished Inferno (1964) falls into in the same mysterious category. Clouzot was one of France’s most distinguished and respected filmmakers, with a turbulent filmmaking history but more than a few enduring classics to his name. The misanthropic wartime production Le corbeau would get him in trouble after the occupation. There’s also the pitiless suspense and political negativity of Manon and The Wages of Fear, and the psychological murder mystery Diabolique, which would inaugurate a new kind of horror film. The Mystery of Picasso is a real-time investigation of an artist at work; and La Vérité an insightful courtroom drama that confirmed Brigitte Bardot as a great actress. I’ve also seen Clouzot’s less well known Les espions, a near-absurdist and disturbingly dry take on paranoid espionage, that casts Sam Jaffe (!) as a calculating, ruthless spymaster.

 

Clouzot was one of the established French directors that the self-promoting New Wave denounced as stuffy and obsolete, and unworthy of the privilege of making movies (!). Clouzot’s best movies may be conventional in form, but they’re far more powerful than anything by Truffaut or Godard. The reputation of his thrillers prevented that — even Alfred Hitchcock was jealous of Clouzot’s Diabolique.

As explained in the film’s narration and interviews, the cast and crew of L’enfer were in awe of their director. They knew him as a brilliant strategist who planned everything to the nth degree, often storyboarding every shot. He took test shots of every angle so as to optimize all visual elements. The cast didn’t mind that he coached their performances to conform tightly into his vision: he knew what he wanted and always made his actors look good. But that’s not how it worked out on this picture. The dailies tell a frightening story of a director who never found what he wanted. He reacted by shooting things over, badgering his cast and confounding his crew. The producer Clouzot never curbed the excesses of the director Clouzot. The large budget from Columbia Pictures was spent in months of visual experiment, followed by only a few weeks (if I heard right) of intense dramatic shooting that never seemed to get anywhere.

 

All of Clouzot’s dailies were preserved in perfect shape; what makes Bromberg’s L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot a must-see item are its uncut snatches of brilliant filmmaking, especially a treasure trove of arresting dream-imagery experiments.

Clouzot began with a straightforward story of obsessive jealousy. Odette (Romy Schneider) and Marcel (Serge Reggiani of Le Doulos) own a hotel on a lake, but Marcel agonizes over Odette’s perceived infidelity, with a local mechanic and others. He imagines orgies with other hotel guests, and Odette’s hairdresser friend Marylou (Dany Carrel of Mill of the Stone Women). As the dailies show, waking reality is in B&W, while Marcel’s brain-numbing suspicions are represented in strange colors. These jealous mind-storms, where his head seems to be exploding, engage crazy psychedelic visual distortions.

 

The story was told straight in a later (1994) version by Claude Chabrol, working from Clouzot’s screenplay. The director announced and ambitious plan to make a new kind of movie that would communicate Marcel’s obsession in non-verbal ways. Most of what we see would appear to be refinements of the kind of silent expressionism well known by film cognoscenti. The dailies show a successful use of a train to underline the pressure on Marcel. Looming over the lake next to the hotel is an enormous railroad bridge. Precise compositions frame Marcel in its arches as the train passes. It’s sharp whistle jabs at his psyche — at one point it sounds when Marcel is happily embracing Odette, and he jerks away from her violently, as if the whistle has triggered his jealous anger. The story is familiar enough — pushed to the limit, Odette angrily spouts untrue confessions to ‘corroborate’ her husband’s accusations, just to get back at him. It all ends up very much like various versions of Carmen.

The real draw is to see the amazing visuals Clouzot’s crack technical crew came up with to illustrate Marcel’s jealous rages. A good comparison can be made with Stanley Kubrick’s search for ‘far out, inconceivable’ images for his 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Stargate effect came through 100%, but for many other scenes Kubrick eventually had to settle for the images his crew could give him. Comparatively speaking, Clouzot’s trick-film crew did better. They strived for great effects through months of R&D, laughing when an idea flopped and exulting when they found something new. Shots use double exposures, distorted mirrors, moire effects and bizarre color lighting in highly creative ways. Even though all the effects are in-the-camera ‘organic,’ many do not betray how exactly they were done.

 

A startling B&W shot expresses Marcel’s violent reaction all too well. In deep focus, a nude Odette lies on the railroad tracks, writhing in terror as the train hurtles toward her. The flawless effect is not an optical; I can only guess that it was accomplished with a large mirror. Other effects are refinements of standard ‘dream scene’ techniques, with distorting mirrors creating disturbing sights. Image-multiplying prisms divide parts of Odette’s face and body into obsessive objects, almost like the blind man’s sculptures of female body parts in Masumura’s disturbing Moju.

Other visuals seem to be Marcel’s exaggeration of possibly harmless sights — he keeps seeing Marylou brazenly baring a nipple. Since we don’t know exactly how Clouzot would have cut these dailies, this is just a guess.

 

The strangest trick was to reverse-print color footage, scrambling all the color values; we see plenty of ‘dream’ footage with actors in odd face paint and blue lipstick, that’s meant to bring their faces partly back to ‘normal’ while everything else remains inverted. Anything is possible today (see Pleasantville) but Clouzot’s experts were limited to standard tricks do-able in a photochemical laboratory. [I don’t think I fully understand the plan for this trickery: I inverted the color on some of the blue-lipped shots . . . and didn’t get anything remotely useful.]

Topping everything are pre-psychedelic images of Romy Schneider apparently meant to represent Marcel’s delirious fixation on Odette. He both worships and loathes her beauty, which seems to threaten his virility. These are various ‘abstract’ close-ups in which Schneider acts out sensations of ecstasy, laughing, smoking a cigarette, writhing in passion, etc. The cameramen must have started by simply projecting images onto Schneider’s face and body, as in fashionable title sequences of the day. But the refinements are startling. Contrasting colors spin around her — we can see the lights of some kind of spinning rig reflected in her eyes. The dizzying changes in shadows make her face appear to change shape, as if it were plastic, or the beginning of a physical transformation. Schneider’s face is frequently awash in reflective emulsions, some of them with shiny substances or maybe tiny sequins. She’s literally transformed into a glittery goddess, all reflected highlights. In some of the shots, her face seems composed of a galaxy of stars.

 

There’s plenty of powerful imagery here: Clouzot certainly had the makings of some jarring dream hallucinations, perhaps as powerful as the cartoon animation Hitchcock used in Vertigo.

So what went wrong? According to his colleagues, Clouzot went entirely off the deep end with his artistic frustration. Did he feel he wasn’t accomplishing the revolutionary cinematic style he wanted? Was asking his crew to conjure up previously unseen visuals, like asking an artist to invent a new color? Did he decide that his ‘new’ kind of movie was just a conventional psychosis drama, punctuated with mere decorative montages? Did Clouzot abuse his actors because he was in a state of artistic panic? Did he flip out because he believed his cast and crew were holding back, or because his own creative magic refused to kick in?

Serge Bromberg allows his interviewees to explain the three crack camera crews Clouzot engaged to help him shoot faster. But on the set he never coordinated them into an efficient tag team. Instead of prepping the next shots, the two extra crews sat idle while the formerly-decisive director creatively stalled out. The big stars Reggiani and even Schneider ran out of patience. The end of filming came with a heart attack and an actor mutiny.

 

Bromberg uses BTS footage and stills of the shoot to flesh out the strange dysfunctional predicament on the set. We see big stars visiting with everyone smiling as if great things are happening, but the footage of H.G. Clouzot does not show a happy man. Had he painted himself into a corner or gone too far out on a creative limb? Did he come to believe that he might be the useless Old Guard that the New Wave directors demanded should exit the stage? Like René Clément, Clouzot had always been a tough, cynical professional, and not the type that one would think would crack up this way.

To explain what the story was all about, Bromberg uses actors Bérénice Bejo, Jacques Gamblin to perform the key acting scenes that Clouzot never got around to filming. They’re quite good. We’re at once reminded of the later Chabrol version, which is kind of tame and conventional. In the final estimation, those abstract special effect images are the lasting gift of L’enfer. They are more magical and arresting than the faux-psychedelic representations of mind-blowing hallucinations in acid-rock movies, Roger Corman drug epics, etc. But if Clouzot had been able to get his act together, anything might have happened. He might have rejected all of the abstract experimentation that had been filmed, and gone in a different direction altogether.


 

Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot) is a fine encoding of this latter-day documentary. Rarely do we see vintage outtakes preserved as well as this. The Clouzot estate must have stored them under optimum conditions. We wonder what deal was made with Columbia (Sony?) for this footage, that they spent so much money on back in 1964. This docu came out in 2009, and we’ve been waiting all this time for a Region A Blu-ray.

Colors are stunning and the B&W footage is equally gorgeous. No synch-sound material is used, perhaps because the sound recordings were lost. Or would re-synching those scenes trigger payments for actors? (that’s a really wild guess).

Arrow has been knocking us out in the last two years with wonderful rare surprises. The disc’s extras are illuminating even if some of them are extensions of what Serge Bromberg produced, like They Saw Inferno, a lengthycompilation of additional interview material. Lucy Mazdon’s video essay on Clouzot is quite good, especially for those unfamiliar with his work.

It’s quite a disc, this labor of love by Serge Bromberg. Come for the light show, stay for the insights into a fascinating director.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Inferno (L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Lucy Mazdon on Henri-Georges Clouzot, the French cinema expert and academic talks at length about the films of Clouzot and the troubled production of Inferno; They Saw Inferno, a featurette including unseen material, providing further insight into the production; Filmed Introduction by Serge Bromberg, Interview with Serge Bromberg; Stills gallery, Original trailer; Illustrated collector’s booklet with an essay by Ginette Vincendeau.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2018
(5649infe)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.